Massage therapists are fortunate to do work that is, by and large, guilt-free. As health practitioners, we are dedicated to helping people heal, and society as a whole benefits as clients let go of their pain. In this profession, we do not exploit labor or rape the planet of its resources. But massage does have an environmental impact—and it is bigger than we might think. The good news is that there are many changes—some small, some more substantial—you can make in the way you run your practice that will have a positive effect on our environment.
One big load
Let's look closely at just one aspect of a massage practice— laundry—and its potential negative impact on the environment. According to the American Massage Therapy Association's 2005 survey of consumers, approximately 47 million Americans received a massage within the previous 12 months. If each of those 47 million people received just one massage a year (and we all know that many receive several massages each year), that means that 94 million sheets are being washed annually by massage therapists.
Much of this laundry is likely done with conventional detergents containing chemicals that are detrimental to both our health and the environment. Most brands of detergent no longer contain phosphates, which put ecosystems out of balance and contribute to the excessive growth of vegetation in waterways; however, the phosphate alternatives now used are not always less harmful. Some do not biodegrade, and have been shown to dissolve toxic heavy metals trapped in sediment, thus reintroducing these toxins into the food chain.
Other chemicals known as synthetic surfactants are common in conventional laundry detergents. Some of these have been shown to activate estrogen receptors, thus altering the activity of certain genes, and possibly promoting the growth of breast-cancer cells. The artificial fragrances added to detergents are petroleum-based and do not biodegrade. They are already implicated in the increasingly common allergy syndrome known as multiple chemical sensitivities.
Apart from releasing potentially toxic chemicals into the environment, the laundry process also consumes immense amounts of energy and water. The typical clothes dryer consumes five kilowatt-hours per use, making it the most power-consumptive household appliance. (A toaster running for an hour, or a 100- watt light bulb running for 10 hours, would each use just one kilowatt-hour of energy.)
The greening of health care
Doing the laundry is only one of the many ways in which our work impacts the environment. We also light, heat and cool our treatment rooms, drive to and from work, and make decisions about how to stock and furnish our clinics. As a profession whose focus is holistic healing, are we doing enough to heal not only ourselves and our clients, but the planet as well? Are we contributing to the degradation of the environment and consuming more of the planet’s resources than we absolutely need to give a good massage? (See "15 Steps to Create a Green Practice.")
Many massage therapists are environmentally aware as individuals— but within the profession as a whole, discussion of how our practice may be hurting the planet is just beginning. Nancy Griffin, founder of the online resource Spatrade.com and author of several articles on spas and the environment, says that she has met many concerned individuals who want to make a difference, but that when it comes to spas, “The focus is still on presentation and packaging rather than on truly natural healing.”
Yet, the greening of health care is a movement that is gathering speed. In conventional medicine, for instance, the waste and pollution generated by the very practice of the discipline is now recognized as running counter to the promotion of health. In the fields of hospital management, nursing and medical practice, great strides have been made within the past decade to reduce the impact that conventional health care has on the environment.
In 1998 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) produced a report that pointed to medical-waste incineration as one of the leading sources of dioxin pollution in the nation. Previously, it had been routine for hospitals to incinerate a large portion of their waste, which often included plastic tubing and packaging, mercury- containing devices and other materials that produce toxic pollutants when burned.
Stacy Malkan, communications director at Health Care Without Harm, an international organization focused on creating ecologically sustainable health-care systems, says that the EPA’s report was the impetus for medical professionals to start talking about how to address the irony that hospitals were one of the nation’s largest polluters. Hospitals have since moved away from incineration and now use other methods, such as sterilization and landfilling. Many hospitals have also taken steps to reduce the amount of waste generated, and to incorporate energy-saving measures in their buildings.
The mindset of green health care is one that encompasses the well-being of the entire global community. Malkan says an important part of the process is “choosing materials that are safe for people’s health and don’t anywhere in their life cycles hurt people in the communities where they’re made and disposed of.” This attitude reflects a growing awareness that the products we purchase have a potential impact on the health of both human beings and the Earth, far beyond our own homes and practices.
This farsighted understanding of environmental impacts was central in the creation of Nusta Spa, a day spa in Washington, D.C. (See "An Extreme Green Spa.") Nusta Spa is the first spa accepted into the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program devised by the Green Building Council to set standards for environmentally sustainable architecture.
Every aspect of Nusta Spa’s design reflects owner Elizabeth Snowdon’s ecological principles. The spa is located close to three subway stations, encouraging the use of public transit. Before construction began, the building that Nusta Spa replaced was carefully dismantled with the intent of recycling as much of it as possible. The spa was then constructed, in part, from second-use and renewable materials: bamboo flooring, oak beams from an old barn, ceiling tiles salvaged from a
renovation project, even drywall composed of synthetic gypsum reclaimed from smokestack interiors.
Snowdon says her twin concerns in creating Nusta Spa were minimizing the spa’s impact on the larger environment and ensuring that the spa itself was as healthy a place as possible. The spa’s use of natural lighting, nontoxic materials and an air-filtration system all combine to be of benefit not just to clients, but also to employees.
Lisa Goodwin has been a massage therapist at Nusta Spa since it opened in 2004, and she says there is a huge difference between this and previous work environments. “Feeling grounded is very important to me in doing massage,” she says, “and knowing that we are helping the Earth and the environment helps me find my ground. There is a very natural and beautiful balance here and a feeling of wellness as soon as you walk in.”
Goodwin says her 30- to 40-hour workweek is eased considerably by the building’s healthy design. “I breathe very easily here. It helps me to help my clients, and they are more relaxed knowing that there is nothing toxic in the environment.”
The staff at Nusta Spa is all well informed of their company's mission, and clients who come in are educated on the ecofriendly aspects of its design and operation. The response from the public has been “overwhelming," says Snowdon. “It’s fun to see people being surprised by some of the things we’ve incorporated, and I think we have successfully overturned the perception that 'environmental design' equals 'ugly.'”
Environmental friendliness has turned out to be an easy sell, Snowdon says, a point of differentiation between Nusta Spa and other spas that has had a positive business impact. Griffin agrees that going green can attract business, although she cautions that anyone who markets herself as an environmentally friendly alternative has a responsibility to follow through with her actions.
Ultimately, though, the greening of massage must arise from massage therapists’ firmly held convictions on protecting the planet, rather than on any simplistic notion that going green might be good for business. By taking small steps, we can align ourselves with the medical professionals and ecologically minded entrepreneurs who are promoting health care without harm. We may not all have the resources with which to build an ecofriendly practice from scratch, but we can certainly revisit our commitment to holistic healing, with the realization that none of us can be truly healthy if our planet is sick.
Vicki Low is a massage therapist and freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada. She runs an environmentally friendly massage practice.
15 Steps to Create a Green Practice
1. Use a biodegradable, nontoxic, fragrance-free laundry detergent and an oxygen bleach, such as sodium percarbonate, to get the oil out of your sheets.
2. Line-dry your sheets. This is the biggest saving you can make in energy consumption. Your energy bill will reflect this, and your sheets will last longer. If you must use a dryer, install an energy-efficient one, and clean the lint filter regularly.
3. Use only the warm or cold settings on your washer. Up to 85 percent of the energy a washer consumes is in heating water.
4. Cut your sheets down to size. Massage linens need only be about 50 inches wide, but many are wider for no purpose. Smaller sheets take less water and energy to launder.
5. Use energy-saving appliances (those marked with an Energy Star label). Front-loading washers, for instance, use about a third the energy of top-loading ones.
6. If you use a linen service, shop around for one that uses environmentally responsible methods.
7. Cut down on disposable paper towels. Reusable hand towels will save countless trees and reduce waste. If you must use paper towels, buy recycled and unbleached.
8. Use environmentally friendly products to clean your treatment space. Oxygen bleaches and citrusbased cleaners are effective and nontoxic. For bare floors, use a broom instead of a vacuum cleaner.
9. Buy organic. If you can afford it, use organic cotton or hemp sheets. For every pound of conventional cotton harvested, farmers have applied a third of a pound of pesticides and fertilizer. Likewise, organic massage and aromatherapy oils will be healthier for your clients and for the environment.
10. Buy office supplies with a high post-consumer content. Use recycled paper for your business cards, brochures and client records. Choose products in recyclable packaging.
11. Insulate and energy-proof your clinic space. Caulk around window and door frames to minimize thermal leakage. Install thermostats and timing devices to control energy use.
12. Set up a recycling center in your building. Every ton of paper recycled saves 17 trees. Every aluminum can recycled saves enough energy to light a 100-watt light bulb for 20 hours.
13. Install compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) in your light fixtures. CFLs use 75 percent less energy and last 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs. Every 90-watt bulb replaced by a CFL saves 1,600 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.
14. Walk, cycle, carpool or take the bus to work. If you do house calls in your car (preferably a hybrid vehicle), keep your tire pressure at the recommended level, service your car regularly and choose ethanol-enhanced gas.
15. When making purchases, look for an environmentally responsible supplier in your region. You might order the most eco-friendly massage table available, made with responsibly harvested and renewable materials, but the emissions generated in trucking it across the country could cancel out the virtues of your choice.
— Vicki Low
To Learn More
Health Care Without Harm: An international organization focused on creating ecologically sustainable healthcare systems. www.noharm.com
The Green Business Letter: An information source for companies, associations, universities, and others who want to integrate environmental practices throughout their organizations in profitable ways. www.greenbizletter.com
GreenBiz.com: An organization that provides free news and resources on aligning environmental responsibility with business success. www.greenbiz.com
SustainableBusiness.com: A listing place for green businesses from such industries as renewable energy, organic products, social investing, building and construction. www.sustainablebusiness.com